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Huey-li Li 157

Silences and Silencing Silences

Huey-li Li
University of Akron

Silence is a complex and complicated cultural phenomenon. While it is
common to view silence as the opposite of speech, it is also noted that silence indeed
complements speech. After all, silence and speech form a continuum of human
communication. Furthermore, silence can be intentional or unintentional. Inten-
tional silence may be a deliberate cultural practice that aims at facilitating introspec-
tion and self-discipline.1 At the same time, the practice of presumably unintentional
silence may originate from long-term acculturation and embodies semiotic experi-
ences.2 In a nutshell, both intentional unintentional silences have multiple meanings
that are open to varied interpretations. In effect, silence is both the signifier and the
signified.3 Thus, Adam Jaworski points out that any effort to formulate the final
definition of silence can be easily entrapped in an infinite regress of definitions.
Instead of searching for a final definition of silence, I agree with Jaworski that a
critical inquiry into silence should focus on how silence works in different commu-
nicative contexts.4
In educational settings, silence plays an important yet ambiguous role in the
formation of school culture. On the one hand, it is still a widely accepted belief that
silencing is an indispensable disciplinary act that aims at establishing an ordered
milieu for effective teaching and learning. Silence as an educational state during
designated period of time thus reveals and sustains hierarchical power relationship
within educational institutions. In view of the disciplinary nature of silence, Paulo
Freire argues that human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false
words, but only by true words, with which men [sic] transform the world.5 In line
with Freires effort to reconstruct the culture of silence, many concerned educa-
tors especially have made concerted efforts to unpack and disclose the multiple
forms of public silencing that have contributed to sustaining oppressive cultural
institutions and practices.6 To a large extent, these educators recognize silence as
both a consequence of and a form of resistance to oppression. Beyond elucidating
the structuring of silence, concerned educators are also committed to reclaiming the
silenced voices.7 The underlying belief is that the silenced people have the right to
speak out and to be heard.
On the other hand, the use of silence in educational settings may simply allow
time for reflection on teaching and learning, which further facilitates more meaning-
ful interactions between teachers and students. For instance, M.B. Rowe points out
that wait-time a moment of silence makes positive contributions to both
teaching and learning.8 Likewise, J.J. Cook notes that a lack of silence often
characterizes unsuccessful psychotherapy while silence is an indicator of successful
sessions.9 In addition, multicultural education movements have raised many educa-
tors awareness of cross-cultural differences in terms of the use of silence in
educational settings. For instance, V.P. John and R.V. Dumont, Jr. find that Navajo
158 Silences and Silencing

children are more inclined to learn by silently observing the surrounding world,
whereas Euro-American cultures tend to recognize and accept speech as a legitimate
and desired form of educational interaction. As educational institutions in the west
tend to solemnize the right of speech, it is not surprising that western education
systems stress the need to cultivate and test all students language skills. Conse-
quently, it is easy for teachers to underrate Navajo childrens cognitive abilities,
owing to their lower verbal test scores.10
As discussed above, educational discourses on silence as a disciplinary act
appear to erroneously render silence as a monolithic psycholinguistic phenomenon.
For example, it is not clear whether silencing as a disciplinary act is so powerful that
silence is the inevitable consequence of oppression. In other words, the polarizing
of the silencers and the silenced seems to oversimplify the power structure within
and beyond educational institutions. Moreover, the pedagogical use of silence such
as wait-time focuses primarily on the instrumental value of silence as if silence has
no intrinsic pedagogical merits. Above all, while many educators have raised their
awareness of varied uses of silences in different cultural contexts, educators have yet
to undertake a more in-depth inquiry into aims and methods of incorporating
multicultural perspectives of silence into educational processes.
The main purpose of this essay is to explore the complex nature of silence in
educational settings and beyond. More specifically, I first examine the pedagogical
merits of silence in facilitating reflection in action, as advocated by Donald A.
Schn.11 Next, I explicate how silence as a form of resistance could interpellate
hegemonic ideological beliefs and confront oppressive cultural practices. I argue
that, in forging co-intentional pedagogy as endorsed by Paulo Freire, educators must
not deliberately silence silence because silencing silence as an intentional pedagogi-
cal act could endorse and embrace speech as the privileged form of human
communication.12 In other words, it is essential for educators to question the
polarization of silence and speech and to challenge the primacy of speech in current
discourse on multicultural education. Beyond reclaiming the silenced voices,
educators also need to inquire into silence as a source of pedagogical knowledge.
As mentioned before, speech and silence actually form a continuum of human
communication. To a certain degree, the complementary relationship between
speech and silence indicates that silence and speech are functionally equivalent.
However, such a pragmatic viewpoint concerning the interdependence and insepa-
rability of speech and silence do not therefore suggest that silence and speech have
equal values in all cultures. In fact, speech has been the preferred means of
communication in most modern societies. After all, the interpretation of silence
demands greater efforts than the interpretation of speech.13 Consequently, we tend
to endorse rather than query the transitivizing nature of silence.
In modern industrial society, technological advancement especially lures us to
eschew silences and to further ratify intolerance of silences. Harry A. Wilmers
observation of American culture may be applicable in other industrialized and
urbanized societies:
Huey-li Li 159

America is a nation of gap fillers and space pluggers. We are individuals who usually do not
listen to other people. We talk all the time, even when others are talking. People are deluged
by radio and television. We awaken and we go to sleep caught up in gossip, news of violence,
and people acting funny interrupted by high-pitched burst of loud laughter. Our social lives
are a melange of noise. We settle for lighthearted, flickering relationship and recreational
sins, and revel in offensive talk on the electronic media carnival.14
As mass media and computer-mediated communication systems constantly erodes
or even depletes silences at macro level, it is nearly impossible for individuals to
learn to appreciate rare moments of silence.
Fillings the gap of silence is also prevalent in educational settings. The
traditional banking model of education does not embrace silence, for it aims at
depositing knowledge into students minds rather than facilitating students
evaluation of knowledge claims. Although there are silent gaps in teachers talks,
lectures, power point presentations, and endless web pages, these gaps are meaning-
less and have to be filled immediately in order not to interrupt the process of
knowledge transmission.
Granted, recent professional teacher education programs have made significant
efforts to reconstruct such lecture-oriented teaching, and the emerging primacy of
cooperative learning in the mainstream teaching education program clearly indi-
cates teacher educators commitment to promoting interactive teaching and learn-
ing. Nevertheless, it is still common to separate professional educational researchers
and professional practitioners regardless of the recent advocacy of teacher-as-
researcher. Professional educational researchers are responsible for undertaking
scientific research in order to build up a solid knowledge base of teaching and
learning. In other words, educational researchers are the authorities and sources of
pedagogical knowledge. Educational practitioners are expected to consult with
educational researchers and observe a set of rules/rubrics formulated by educational
researchers.15 Schn points out that such unreflective dependence on scientific
method reflect technical rationality that still dominates most teacher training
programs.16 According to such technical rationality, teaching and learning are a
linear series of pre-determined activities, which may include the use of silence when
the use of silence can be proved to be fruitful for learning. To illustrate, M. E. Rowes
well-done study of wait-time includes the following findings:
1. The length of student response increased from a mean of seven words to a mean of 27
2. The mean number of appropriate unsolicited responses increased from five to 17.
3. Mean failure to respond drops from seven to one.
4. Mean incidence of evidence-inference statements increases from six to 14.
5. Average incidence of soliciting, structuring, and reacting moves increase from five to 32.
6. Number of speculative responses increase from a mean of two to a mean of seven.
7. Incidence of student-student comparison of data increases.
8. Frequency of student-initiated questions increases from a mean of one to a mean of four.17
Based on the above findings, Rowe concludes that the use of silence wait-time
can improve the quality of classroom interaction. It is apparent that Rowes
argument is based on the assumption that the quality of classroom interaction is
determined by the quantity of interactions. Thus, silent wait-time is simply to entail
160 Silences and Silencing

verbal responses. While Rowe does attend to the number of speculative responses,
it is clear that silent speculation cannot be observed and measured. Hence, the
verbalization of students speculation is the only measurable indicator of the quality
of classroom interaction.
In line with Rowes study, many teachers learn to utilize silent wait-time in the
process of teaching. To a large extent, they may be aware that a moment of silent
wait-time is an essential temporal space for thinking and reflection. However, the
current accountability movement is so outcome driven that many teachers are
inclined to view silence as a mechanic device for soliciting observable and measur-
able responses. In other words, silence as a pedagogical action may not be grounded
in teachers mindful reflections on teaching and learning.
In supporting Schns advocating teachers engagement in reflection-in-
action, Robert Tremmel points out that Zen Buddhism as alternative epistemologi-
cal tradition to technical rationality sheds significant light on the possibility of
reflective and mindful teaching.18 According to D. T. Suzuki:
Zen is not necessarily against words, but is well aware of the fact that they are always liable
to detach themselves from realities and turn into conceptions. And this conceptualization is
what Zen is against.Zen insists on handling the thing itself and not an empty abstraction.19

The devaluation of words/speech in Zen Buddhism derives from the recognition of

the limitation of language. Likewise, Indian yoga tradition also discredits verbalism
and embraces silence. Accordingly, S. N. Ganguly argues that silence is the limit
of our world of description or language and silence is silence and completely
different from any kind of language.20 In the same vein of thoughts, Max Picard
When language ceases, silence begins. But it does not begin BECAUSE language ceases.
The absence of language simply makes the presence of Silence more apparent. Silence is an
autonomous phenomenon. It is therefore not identical with the suspension of language. It is
not merely the negative condition that sets in when the positive is removed; it is rather an
independent whole, subsisting in and through itself.21

On the one hand, the above perspectives are problematic because the search for
the essence of silence can easily result in an infinite regress of definitions. On the
other hand, these perspectives are very helpful for rethinking the silence as an inward
spiritual state for reflective thinking.
Renee T. Clift and Robert Houston point out that the western cultural concep-
tion of reflection tends to emphasize analysis and problem-solving.22 To a large
extent, this type of reflection relies upon speech/language in defining terms and
concepts, formulating hypothesis, and evaluating outcomes in a very linear process.
In contrast, in Returning to Silence, Dainin Katagiri notes that Zen reflection is about
sit down and just be present right now, right here. This is a continual process.
Process is really dynamic energy; it is not a concept of energy or concept of process.
Process is process.23 In other words, Zen reflection does not aim at specific pre-
determined outcomes or search for desirable outcomes. Instead, Zen reflection
embraces a mindful awareness of here and now. As language and speech are
highly structured and regulated, ones undertaking speech acts can easily distract
Huey-li Li 161

ones engagement in such mindful and reflective process. However, as a pedagogi-

cal process, silence, devoid of regulative linguistic structures, can be conducive for
both teachers and students to raise awareness of here and now as the pedagogical
process. In other words, the pedagogical use of silence does not aim at soliciting any
prescribed or desirable verbal responses, as implied in Rowes study of wait-time.
The pedagogical silence simply is facilitative to invite students to enter the mindful
process of self-directed learning. All in all, it is not necessary to structure teaching
solely through talk/speech. Nor is it prudent to evaluate students learning
according to their verbal participation in in-class learning activities. Instead, it is
important to be reflectively attentive to the process of teaching and learning.
It is also essential for concerned educators to become more mindful and
reflective about what S. U. Philips terms interaction through silence in formal
educational institutions.24 Such silent interaction can incorporate all the situations
in which the silent, nonverbal, physical, visual, and other signals override speech in
interpreting the communicative behavior of the participant(s), although speech and
other vocal signals may be present and need not be excluded from the interpretation
of a given speech situation structured through silence.25 In highly structured
educational institutions, teachers as well as students gradually acquire tactic
knowledge in encoding and decoding silent interaction. Also, they are fully aware
of the clear demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable silent interaction
even though the rules are rarely spelled out. Many educational ethnographers further
note that students success in school is not solely determined by their acquisition of
academic knowledge. Rather, students success, to a large extent, depends upon
when and how to display acceptable interaction competence in classroom settings.
Such interaction competencies often constitute students attitude toward learning in
the schools. To illustrate, Perry Gilmores study points out that academic tracking
indeed can be based on students silent attitudes. He also notes that teachers and
students all use silence to negotiate their power relationships. However, while
teachers tend to exert and display power, students are more inclined to defy and
claim power.26 Thus, in view of the significant impact of students attitude, teachers
like psychotherapists must listen with the third ear to what is often left unsaid.27
In other words, reflective teachers must attend to and redress the asymmetric power
relationship that exists in the silent interaction.
Silencing as a disciplinary act reveals and sustains imbalanced power relation-
ships between individuals and between groups. The state of silence indeed signifies
a state of oppression. In confronting cultural imperialism, Gloria Anzaldua point-
edly exclaims that The Anglo with the innocent face has yanked our tongue, thus
sentencing colonized cultural beings to silenced culture. Drowned, we spit darkness.
Fighting with our very shadow we are buried by silence.28 To silenced people, the
desire and ability to speak out is a liberating process. Thus, bell hooks points out that
Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited,
and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that
makes new life and new growth possible.29 Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren also
state that the minority students voice is the discursive means to make themselves
162 Silences and Silencing

heard and to define themselves as active authors of their worlds.30 Reclaiming

silenced voices thus has emerged as the central theme of the recent postmodern
multicultural education movement. To many concerned educators, the reclaimed
silenced voices are the liberatory voices that could redress historical injustice at the
macro level. At the micro level, many educators also strive to establish an ideal
discursive community in the classroom, where the silent students can speak out.
Metaphorically, these educators are eager to silence silence in order to achieve
human liberation. However, there are problems with endorsing silencing silences as
a liberatory pedagogical and social movement.
First, while it is true that various forms of public silencing have deprived the
silenced peoples of their right to public speech, it is misleading to assume that the
silenced people are unable to protest and resist silencing. Also, it is important to
recognize that the silenced, such as women, can be complicit in the cultural practice
of their silences.31 Although silenced peoples complicity in social silence does not
therefore justify the act of public silencing, it acknowledges the silenced peoples
human agency. Furthermore, it should be noted that the silencers cannot escape the
pervasive impact of silencing the others. In other words, the silencers can easily
deprive themselves of the right to listen to different voices. To illustrate, in
examining womens being silenced in most cultures, Susan Gal finds that while the
silenced women may be powerless in the public domain, they are able to develop
alternative communicative skills, such as attentiveness and responsiveness to others
in conversation. She further points out, the fact that social silence has neglected
women makes women of the past and other cultures seem silent, when in fact the
silence is that of current western scholarship.32 Thus, silencing silences not only
might reaffirm the primacy of speech but also might perpetuate the dominant
groups speech as the norm at the macro level. In the classroom settings, as teachers
enlist participation as an evaluation criterion, they inevitably suggest that silent
active listening is not a legitimate form of participation.
Second, it should be noted that the silenced peoples reclaiming their voices
often relies upon the mastery of the dominant groups languages. Thus, although bell
hooks recognizes the liberating force of moving from silence to speech, she also
notes that many African Americans view English as the oppressors language
which has the potential to disempower those of us who are just learning to speak, who
are just learning to claim language as a place where we make ourselves subject.33
Audre Lorde echoes bell hooks concern: Certainly for Black women our struggle
has not been to emerge from silence to speech but to change the nature and direction
of our speech. To make a speech that compels listeners, one that is heard.34 But, is
it imperative for the silenced to reclaim their voices in order to redress various forms
of oppression? Jurgen Habermas is fully aware that speech can be systematically
distorted to privilege some individuals or some groups over others. Yet he strives to
articulate the ideal speech act as a means to the emancipation of the oppressed.35
Lordes efforts to make a speech that compels listeners certainly mirrors the
Habermas pursuit of an ideal speech act. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the
oppressors must hear the silenced peoples compelling speech in order to be aware
of their perils. Nor is it certain that the dominant will surrender their privileges upon
Huey-li Li 163

listening to the reclaimed silenced voices. In fact, it is more likely that the dominant
groups will desire to enhance and preserve the privileges that had led to the
oppressive silencing at the first place. Thus, it is not prudent to put an undue burden
on silenced people to make compelling public speech. Instead, it might be essential
for the dominant groups to unpack their presumably invisible privileges at the
macro level, as suggested by Peggy McIntosh.36 Likewise, instead of compelling
students to perform verbal participation, a reflective teacher ought to be more
attentive to the silent interaction in the classroom, which reveals human desires,
interests, and power relationship.
Third, reclaiming silenced voices undoubtedly can raise our awareness of
individual as well as group differences. However, Trinh Minh-ha points out that
The Third World representative the modern sophisticated public ideally seeks is the
unspoiled African, Asian, or Native American, who remains more preoccupied with
her/his image of the real native the truly different than with issues of
hegemony, racism, feminism, and social change.37 In other words, differences
can be easily transformed into the form of commodity in advanced capitalism, as
suggested by Frederic Jameson.38 Patricia Hill Collins further argues that the
difference to be commodified is an authentic, essential difference long associated
with group differences of race, ethnicity, gender, economic class, and sexuality.39
While the commodification of the marginalized and silenced voices and the
consumption of otherness certainly contribute to the continual diversification of
scholarly discourses, they also distract needed attentions to the imbalanced struc-
tural power relationships between various groups in the political and economic
dimensions. Furthermore, the tendency to essentialize the reclaimed silenced voices
often lead the consumers to quest for specific voices in terms of formats and
contents. Consequently, the performance of reclaiming silenced voices will inevi-
table lead to the silencing of unmarketable voices at the macro level. Similarly,
teachers are able to compel students to engage in verbal participation in the
classroom settings, but they are unlikely to hear and listen to students inner voices
that do not meet the teachers expectations.
In short, reclaiming silenced voices as a pedagogical and social movement may
carry the risk of disempowering silenced individuals and groups. Thus, any delib-
erate educational efforts must attend to the multiple meanings of silences before they
begin silencing silences.
In conclusion, silence and speech are the inseparable foundations of human
communication. However, the dichotomization of silence and speech misleads us to
devalue silence and privilege speech. My affirmation of the pedagogical merits of
silences does not aim at silencing speech. Rather, I call for a recognition of the
need to dismantle this false dichotomy and to develop a pedagogical understanding
of silences.

1. Alice Borchard Greene, The Philosophy of Silence (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1940) and Bernard
P. Dauenhauer, Silence: The Phenomenon and its Ontological Significance (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1980).


164 Silences and Silencing

2. For instance, silence is an appropriate greeting act in Amish community. See W. Enninger, What
Interactants Do with Non-Talk Across Cultures, in Analyzing Intercultural Communication eds. K.
Knapp, W. Enninger, and A. Knapp-Potthoff (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1987), 269-302.
3. Dennis Kurzon, Discourse of Silence (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1998).
4. Adam Jaworski, The Power of Silence: Social and Pragmatic Perspectives (Newbury Park: Sage
Publications, 1993).
5. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970), 76.
6. Lois Weis and Michelle Fine, eds. Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race, and Gender in United States
Schools (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 1.
7. Marsha Houston and Cheris Kramarae, Speaking from Silence: Methods of Silencing and of
Resistance, Discourse and Society 2, no. 4 (1991): 387-99; Voices from the Silence: Guatemalan
Literature of Resistance, ed. Marc Zimmerman and Raul Rojas (Athens, Ohio: University Center for
International Studies, 1998); and Marnia Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in
Question (New York: Routledge, 1994).
8. M.B. Rowe, Pausing Phenomena: Influence on the Quality of Instruction, Journal of Psycholinguistic
Research 2, no. 2 (1974): 203-24.
9. J.J. Cook, Silence in Psychotherapy, Journal of Counseling Psychology 11, no. 1 (1964): 42-46.
10. V.P. John , Styles of LearningStyles of Teaching: Reflections on the Education of Navajo
Children, R.V. Dumont, Jr., Learning English and How to Be Silent: Studies in Sioux and Cherokee
Classrooms, in Functions of Language in the Classroom, ed. Courtney B. Cazden, Vera P. John, and
Dell Hymes (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1972), 331-43, 370-94.
11. Donald A. Schn, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic
Books, 1983).
12. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum,
13. D. Sperber and D. Wilson, Relevance: Communication and Cognition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).
14. Harry A. Wilmer, Quest for Silence (Am Klosterplatz, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag, 2000), 19.
15. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, University
of Chicago Press, 1958).
16. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner, 21.
17. M.B. Rowe, Pausing Phenomena: Influence on the Quality of Instruction, Journal of Psycholinguistic
Research 2, no. 2 (1974): 221-22.
18. Robert Tremmel, Zen and the Art of Reflective Practice in Teacher Education in The Complex
World of Teaching: Perspectives from Theory and Practice, ed. Ethan Mintz and John T. Yun
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 87-110.
19. D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (1959; reprint, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989),
20. S.N. Ganguly, Culture, Communication, and Silence, Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research 29, no. 2 (1968-69): 200.
21. Max Picard, The World of Silence (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1988), 17.
22. Renee T. Clift and Robert Houston, The Potential for Research Contributions to Reflective
Practice, in Encouraging Reflective Practice in Education ed. Renee T. Clift, W. Robert Houston, and
M. C. Pugach (New York: Teachers College Press, 1990), 208-22.
23. Dainin Katagiri, Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books,
1988), 126.
24. S.U. Philips, Interaction Structured through Talk and Interaction Structured through Silence, in
Perspectives on Silence, ed. D. Tannen and M. Saville-Troike (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1985), 205-13.
25. Adam Jaworski, The Power of Silence: Social and Pragmatic Perspectives (Newbury Park: Sage
Publications, 1993), 18.


Huey-li Li 165

26. Perry Gilmore, Silence and Sulking: Emotional Display in the Classroom, in Tannen and Saville-
Troik, Perspectives on Silence, 139-62.
27. Theodor Reik, Listening with the Third Ear: The Inner Experience of A Psychoanalyst (New York:
Farrar, 1948).
28. Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987), 203.
29. Bell hooks, Taking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston: South End Press, 1989), 9.
30. Henry A. Giroux and Peter McLaren, Teacher Education and the Politics of Engagement: The Case
for Democratic Schooling, Harvard Educational Review 56, no. 3 (1986): 213-38.
31. Dorothy E. Smith, The Everyday World as Problematic (Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University
Press, 1987).
32. Susan Gal, Speech and Silence: The Problematics of Research on Language and Gender, in
Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, ed. M. di Leonardo (Berkeley: Univeristy of California Press,
1990), 426.
33. Bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1996).
34. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1984): 124.
35. Jrgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1979).
36. Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, in Peace and Freedom
(July/August, 1989), 10-12.
37. Trinh Min-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1989), 88.
38. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, New Left Review 146
(July/August 1984): 53-92.
39. Patricia Hill Collins, Whats Going On? Black Feminist Thought and the Politics of Postmodernism,
in Working the Ruins: Feminist Poststructural Theory and Methods in Education, ed. Elizabeth A.
St.Pierre and Wanda S. Pillow (New York: Routledge, 2000), 27-40.